Palos Verdes Peninsula High School

Opinion: Why do we study English?

The reasons we study literature can be broad and subjective, but I believe this is what makes the trade worth learning. Nonetheless, the secret is out. As much as I’d like to deny it– the humanities, the love of literature, and the practice of studying the English language is on its way out. These days, the subject if often disregarded and unaccepted, but if anything, analyzing literature teaches us to be accepting. We become both aware and amenable to new beliefs, differences, complex issues, and the art of writing itself. It can be summed up in Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article, “Why Teach English?” I wholeheartedly agree when he writes, “we cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence.” That concept, the novel idea of just “Doing Something Else” for the sake of happiness, is exactly why we study literature. I won’t go so far as to say that I bathe in rapture while hunting for literary devices that prove an “overall theme or tone” … But I will be so bold as to say that the lit lovers of the world have got something right. We understand the value in looking both inside and outside ourselves. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what life’s really all about?

While that message is attainable and pleasant in theory, it does not support the case for our dwindling and often underappreciated English jobs and majors. I get the sense that we (and I say we meaning the English lovers of the world) are not the problem because we clearly understand the value of prose and its weight in the modern world. The real question is how do we do we beat the stereotype of the “unemployed English major,” and moreover, how did this stereotype even come to be? I find myself pondering this a lot because most of the bright English students I’ve met are capable, engaging, and worthy of upper-echelon jobs. What we study in college has a direct correlation to the jobs we seek; however it shares an even bigger correlation to how we live our lives from that experience onward. For example, the Princeton Majors website explicitly states that “[while] explaining to your family why you are majoring in classics or comparative literature may seem daunting, keep in mind that employers look more closely at the analytic and communication skills of their prospective employees than they do at the candidate’s major.” While I appreciate the shout out to comparative literature majors, I must admit I am slightly offended by the sheer acknowledgement of this stigma. When did English majors become the underdogs– the ugly stepsisters that college students everywhere are afraid to take home to Mom? Moreover, I dislike how Princeton compartmentalizes majors as if it is the academic stamp of one’s life. I suppose in some ways it is, however if you’re smart enough to get into Princeton, I am sincerely not worried about your job opportunities, and this goes for any hard-working English student. We are fierce, we are dedicated, and we are the poster children for the success of studying literature.

Good literature students have a more genuine appreciation for others, simply because they spend a great deal of time understanding the ins and outs of fictional characters and the brilliant authors who create them. In the article, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy” author Julianne Chilaet reveals that reading’s “psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.” This is just one piece of tangible evidence supporting the study of literature; with many more examples being less tactile, relating to way we treat and learn from each other. Truthfully, the fact that we even have to back up our choice of major with evidence saddens me. On a broad education scale, we study literature because it develops the essential analytical facets of our mind. On a more personal level, the decision to study literature is entirely subjective; I analyze lit because it’s fun. I enjoy learning about people’s styles and personalities. Maybe you study to become more compassionate, or challenge yourself. You may have an empirical love for the written word, or a desire to find it. Whatever the reason, we study literature because it is a way to learn actively about our lives. It is not a stagnant subject; literature is kinetic, fluid, and prevalent everyday whether we embrace it or not. In his article “The Humanist Vocation,” David Brooks shares that “the job of the humanities [is] to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul.” So while we may not love every ounce of dense text or savor each Shakespearian sentence, we can at least agree that there is value in humanities because there is value in developing the human race. Plus, it sounds pretty darn cool to major in “the cultivation of the human core”… so take that, haters.